DALTON, Ga. - Jef Valkeniers loves the relationship between his hometown of Dilbeek, Belgium, and its Sister City, Dalton, except for one thing - too many Belgians decide to call the area home.
"We are losing some of our best students to the states; you have to stop keeping them," Valkeniers joked Wednesday morning during a welcome ceremony at Dalton City Hall.
A group of 37 Belgian business and political leaders, some accompanied by family members, arrived in Dalton on Tuesday evening for a five-day visit to the area. They will tour area businesses, Dalton State College and historic sites while staying with host families.
Dalton and Dilbeek have had a Sister City relationship for more than 20 years, but recently strengthened the relationship with a student exchange program and stronger economic ties.
Four Belgian students will arrive at Dalton State in February to study for four months. Leaders from both cities say they hope the newly established exchange program will continue to grow.
Dalton is also home to several Belgian-owned manufacturing plants, including the newly opened IVC US. The Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce plans to travel to Belgium in October to explore more business growth between the two countries.
"A lot of friendships have been made," Valkeniers said during the ceremony that included remarks from city leaders, an exchange of gifts and playing the Belgian anthem from an online video.
Valkeniers, a retired medical doctor, heads up the Belgian planning committee for the Sister City program and has been to Dalton a number of times.
Dalton city leaders mentioned the advantages the program brings to Dalton, but Valkeniers said the exchange works both ways.
In addition to learning about the area's business, history and culture, the exchange helps Belgians learn English, he said. Just last week, the Belgian government voted to add English as a third language residents should learn, in addition to French and Dutch.
For Dalton resident Lou Lavigne, this week's visit is a chance to renew old friendships. Lavigne, who speaks French, has served as an interpreter for the two groups since the relationship began.
Even before then, he visited Belgium many times. On Wednesday morning, the 93-year-old Lavigne wore a small Belgian flag in his hat as he leaned on his cane.
"These are my people; they are all my friends," he said.